Join the Forces Fighting Campus Food Insecurity This Holiday Season

For many, the holidays are synonymous with bellies full of rich food.

College students flock home for such festivities — some eager for a home-cooked meal after months without. ‘Tis the season for “broke, hungry college student” stereotypes. But positioning instant-noodle diets as a rite of passage is anything but humorous to students facing the year-long reality of food insecurity.

The problem, defined by the College & University Food Bank Alliance as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and, or the ability to acquire such foods in a socially acceptable manner,” is more common than many realize.

In a recent study led by Washington State University food scientist Cassandra Nikolaus, researchers measured campus food insecurity using weighted means and sample sizes of existing peer-reviewed studies on the topic. They uncovered a food insecurity prevalence rate of 41 percent among college campuses, with estimates ranging from 10 percent to 75 percent across all studies.

According to Feeding America, 39 percent of the 20 million-plus college students in the U.S. are considered low income. Rising tuition, rent, and transportation costs — set against the economic constraints of the pandemic — leave little money for meals. The New York Times reports that, in some cases, students must choose between tuition and food.

Measuring Impact

College students face significantly higher rates of food insecurity than the general population. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 10.5 percent of U.S. households reported food insecurity in 2020, compared with an average of 41 percent across college campuses (Nikolaus et al., 2020).

Still, a lack of standards makes it difficult to quantify how bad the problem has become.

Given the critical importance of the issue, researchers like Brenna Ellison at the University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign, are discussing the importance of working toward a “valid and reliable food insecurity measurement tool that better reflects the unique resources and constraints of college students.” By using reliable and precise tools with optimal reach, they argue, schools can better stamp out student hunger.

It’s vital that they do: there is evidence that food-insecure students are more likely than their peers to report a lower GPA. Another study, published just this year in the journal Public Health Nutrition, linked student food insecurity with poor sleep quality and physical/mental health. To enhance both health and academic outcomes, the latter researchers suggest that campuses introduce layered policy reforms and campus wellness initiatives.

What Schools are Doing

Multiple campus and student-led organizations are working to help those struggling to afford food.

In October and November, the Aztec Student Union at San Diego State University hosted Aztecs Rock Hunger, an annual, university-wide food drive. Another student organization, the Bearcats Food Recovery Network at the University of Cincinnati, takes advantage of the food surplus at dining halls and local restaurants, redistributing it to students and community members in need.

Eliminating food waste often goes hand-in-hand with addressing food insecurity. At Wichita State, students can access leftover catering from campus events through a share-a-meal program. The mobile-friendly initiative empowers students who download the Dine On Campus app to receive notifications once meals are available.

In a similar approach, the University of California–Merced is partnering with the mobile application Fresh Food Connect to local fruit and vegetable growers to eliminate food waste in their businesses. Using the app, donors can drop off goods at a free community fridge devoted to feeding the entire community, students included.

With COVID-19 precautions restricting worker access to indoor locations, student dining groups are going above and beyond to serve their communities. In October, volunteers at The Pantry at the University of California–Davis distributed bags of food to students rather than have students pick them up.

The Pantry also worked with Daylight Foods to provide student dining boxes filled with goods like milk, eggs, cheese, and turkey sausage every Friday in October. Daylight Foods received federal coronavirus relief funding to make the program possible and will continue the effort pending additional grants.

Government and Nonprofit Assistance

Other schools are helping college students tap directly into the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), for which Congress expanded eligibility during the pandemic. Through CalFresh at The Beach, for instance, California State University–Long Beach helps students navigate California’s SNAP program, including preparation for prescreening, the verification processes, and interviews.

Nonprofit groups also help connect food-insecure students with benefit programs. To that end, two of the largest organizations in this space, Swipe Out Hunger and the College and University Food Bank Alliance, recently joined forces to alleviate campus food insecurity.

“CUFBA has played an enormous role in galvanizing hundreds of colleges to support students’ basic needs over the last decade,” says Rachel Sumekh, founder and CEO of Swipe Out Hunger. “It is an incredible honor to welcome the CUFBA members into our growing movement, all under the shared vision of ensuring no student has to choose between their education and food.”


Load more comments
New code